BOB GARFIELD: A few weeks ago, Pastor Mack Wolford, a Pentecostal preacher from West Virginia, whose worship services included the handling of poisonous serpents, was bitten by a yellow timber rattlesnake. Wolford suffered for hours before he finally allowed emergency services to be notified, but by then it was too late. Wolford died from the bite. The religious belief that underlies Wolford’s snake handling practice and his willingness to die as a result is one thing. The religious belief that kept his family and congregants from calling emergency services on his behalf is another.
But there was a third person whose beliefs were tested that day, and that’s photojournalist Lauren Pond, who had been documenting Pastor Wolford’s ministry, and who watched him die.
LAUREN POND: I’ve been working on a documentary project about Pentecostal serpent handling for a little over a year now. I met Mack Wolford in May of 2011 at a religious service in Panther Park, near Jolo, West Virginia.
The practice of Pentecostal serpent-handling is part of a larger tradition called Signs Following. And Mack was the first pastor who really opened up to me about it. There’s a verse in the King James Bible, it’s Mark Chapter 16, Verses 17-18. Essentially, it says if you’re a true believer that you’ll be able to take up serpents, drink any deadly thing, lay hands on the sick and they shall recover. Signs Following faith is based on these signs of true belief. You know, you see in Pentecostal churches often people speaking in tongues and laying hands on the sick, but they don’t handle snakes or drink poison or handle fire. And this particular sect of Pentecostalism does.
BOB GARFIELD:It’s dangerous. Mack Wolford’s own father, himself a Pentecostal minister, died from a rattlesnake bite.
LAUREN POND: I believe it was when Mack was 15.
BOB GARFIELD: So nobody was under any illusions about how risky this practice is. Nor were you. Did you give any thought, before you began taking pictures, as to what you would do in the event that he would be bitten?
LAUREN POND: When I first heard about this practice and when I first started photographing it, the thought had crossed my mind, “Well, what if something happens?” But I never thought I would encounter it. I did, actually, witness another bite in January at a church in Tennessee. It was a young pastor. He turned pale and he was sick for a couple of hours, I think, but then he got better.
But I’ve heard stories of people getting bitten and getting better, so I honestly didn’t think I would see it.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so let’s go to May 27th. You were invited by Mack Wolford. He asked you to come down to West Virginia. Tell me about the events of that day.
LAUREN POND: I didn’t see the bite happen. People were praying for him after he had been bitten, and so that’s when it got my attention. He wanted the service to go on, even after he’d been bitten. But it ground to a half, I’d say, within 20 minutes because then he wasn’t able to stand by himself. Everyone was praying for him and taking care of him. He was visibly ill.
BOB GARFIELD: Was there talk in the congregation of calling for help?
LAUREN POND: No, not that I heard. Even if someone had tried to call, we were out in a place where there was no cell phone reception, so we wouldn’t have been able to call right away. No one said anything about getting medical attention, and my understanding of this belief system is that practitioners do not want medical treatment. They believe – it is the ultimate act of faith, really. You trust in God at this point, and he’ll either take you or he’ll heal you.
BOB GARFIELD: There was a gathering tragedy, and you continued to take pictures, and you did not attempt to get help. Did you consider the possibility of trying to intervene to save the guy’s life?
LAUREN POND: The next day I definitely had the pang of guilt: Why didn’t I call somebody? But at the time, no, it wasn’t a strong thought that stuck in my mind. I think it’s an important part of the faith that not everyone gets to see or witness, and it was instinct. I just kept going. If something’s happening, you know, I’m not gonna try and stop it. Doing so and calling the paramedics would have undermined everything that he stood for and everything that I knew about him.
My responsibility as a journalist is to show things in as complete and accurate way as possible, and if I’d seen someone get shot, I would call the ambulance for that person, ‘cause they weren’t intended to get shot and, obviously, I – I think they’d want medical help. Here, I knew he didn’t want medical attention. And his whole family knew that. And this was the way I believe that he wanted to die. Obviously, there are going to be people who disagree with me, but I’m okay with that.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, so I – I understand the journalistic impulse, and I also understand the rationale that you are an invited guest, witnessing somebody else’s belief system. I got to tell you, if I’m in your position, I say, “Get out of the way, I’m finding a phone” because for me my human responsibility trumps my journalistic responsibility, in this set of circumstances. Now that you’ve had the time to think this over, would you do today what you – did on May 27th?
LAUREN POND: Yes, I’d say so. As a journalist, the question is like when are you a fly on the wall and when are you a human being: When do you intervene and when do you just watch and document? I think you just have to assess the situation. For me, it was never just a photo opportunity. I really wanted to show – and I think a lot of journalists want to show the complete story, you know, help people understand something like this better, in this faith that had been, for lack of a better word, sensationalized.
One of the most touching emails I got said something to the effect of – I had dismissed the death of the West Virginia pastor as simply a Darwinian process and your piece painted his actions and his - those of his family and following in a more human way. It wasn’t just a senseless death. He died – doing something he truly believed in.
BOB GARFIELD: Lauren, thank you very, very much for joining us.
LAUREN POND: You’re welcome. Thank you.
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BOB GARFIELD: Lauren Pond is a freelance photographer focusing on religion. Her photo essay on the Life and Death of Mack Wolford appeared in The Washington Post.